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Pagan: Ultima VIII (DOS)

100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168604)
Written on  :  May 08, 2004
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars4.33 Stars

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Avatar, Avatar, what hast thou done?..

The Good

"Ultima VIII: Pagan" is the most controversial Ultima game, and is regarded by many fans as the lowest point of the series. The nickname "Super Mario Avatar" says it all. As soon as the game was released, accusations began to gush from all the sides: the jumping is ridiculous, my Avatar doesn't behave like an Avatar any more, this isn't Britannia, this isn't role-playing, Iolo, Shamino, and Dupre aren't there, Lord British, what has thou done, etc.

It is not easy for me to see the objective truth (or at least something close to it) behind those accusations, and behind my own feelings as an Ultima fan. Even though I came to the series "backwards" (I first played Ascension, then Ultimas IV to VIII, so I was already prepared for the actiony, RPG-less gameplay of this title), I was still unpleasantly surprised more than once while playing "Pagan". Of all the Ultimas I have played, this is my least favorite one. Perhaps it is really objectively weaker than Ultimas IV-VII, being less detailed and less unique. However, "Pagan" is still miles and miles above your average action semi-RPG. Despite some shocking (and not always appropriate) changes it is still in the same league with the other "mature" Ultimas, an indispensable chapter of the final trilogy, and quite a rich and rewarding game on its own.

The most important positive change "Pagan" made was the drastic increase of atmospheric intensity. Pure, "sensual" atmosphere was not really important in Ultima games. Despite serious, violent, or tragic events, that occurred from time to time, the sensual side of the game world was never given much attention in Ultima. The graphics were always good, but pretty abstract. Crafting detailed environments and abundance of items and creatures was more important than trying to actually express the serene beauty of hills, mountains, and rivers, or to reflect the horrors of a dungeon. Not so in "Pagan". The moment you start the game you realize you are in some sort of a bizarre, hostile world. "Pagan" is romantically dark and threatening, its stylish design includes such strange and expressive things as deep, dark blue water, or huge mushrooms growing everywhere. The technical quality of the graphics, which is clearly superior to than of the two previous Ultimas, is not the only reason for this. The designers tried to show maximum contrast between Britannia and Pagan, and they succeeded by creating a new original world.

Another thing that should go under the Good section is the addition of jumping and climbing. Most people ridiculed those new features. Indeed they could have been better executed (the Avatar is unbearably clumsy), but the addition of a physical interaction with the environments is a very important achievement. It adds a whole new dimension to the already amazing interaction possibilities Ultima series has to offer. In "Pagan", you can do even more things than before. It doesn't look this way because there are not as many items and people in this game as there were in previous Ultimas, but the fact is that all the great interaction we have been used to is still there, and wasn't "replaced" by jumping and climbing. You can still pick any item you want and place it wherever you want. There are still a lot of things which are "just there", which you can examine and manipulate the way you like.

The game world, Pagan, is rather small, and appears a bit bland at times, but is still remarkable rich and detailed. Despite the somewhat linear (compared to previous Ultimas) gameplay there is a lot of exploring to do in the game. Pagan is full of mysterious, dark locations, some of which are not necessary to visit in order to complete the game, like Pit of Death or the Slayer Dungeon. The flora of the game is unique (unlike the disappointing fauna - we've seen enough skeletons and trolls before), and the overall appearance is very original and stylish.

The story of "Pagan" is also much more intricate than most people think. In a true Ultima vein, it doesn't just tell one story that is set in the present, but also provides a tremendous amount of background material for it. The story premise and its environment have always been more important for Ultima than the actual plots (even in such heavily plot-oriented game as Serpent Isle). For example, Quest of the Avatar has almost no storyline, but the background information about the world and the characters we are given is so interesting that it encourages us to continue playing the same way a good plot would. The storyline of "Pagan" also appears to be simple and straightforward, but think of all the extensive background information we get in the game! In order to fully understand and enjoy the story of "Pagan", it is necessary to listen carefully to what the characters tell you, and to read books that are scattered all over the game. Thankfully, there are plenty of books in "Pagan", ranging from simple magical instructions to detailed history of Pagan's culture.

The strange deeds Avatar commits in the game can be interpreted in a logical way: a world that is controlled by the Guardian, and its omnipresent shadow that accompanies you on your quest are most likely to confuse Avatar's mind and to force him to reveal his "dark side". This explanation is partly confirmed in "Ascension", where the Avatar finally faces his archenemy.

The magic system in "Pagan" is, hands down, the best of the series. No wonder, as it is also a central aspect of the story. In order to flee from Pagan, you must become proficient in three kinds of magic - Necromancy, Theurgy, and Sorcery (there is also the fourth kind, Tempestry, but its spells are not available to you in the game and therefore you cannot master it). The fourth magic types correspond to the four Elemental Titans: Lithos (earth), Stratos (air), Pyros (fire), and Hydros (water). Each one of the three systems is unique, having its own spells and casting technique. Earth magic is the closest to the standard Ultima system: you mix reagents and prepare expendable spells. In order to be able to cast air spells, you must make foci out of silver ore, which then become extremely powerful magical spell-containing items of infinite charge. Fire magic system (Sorcery) is the most complex one. You put red and black candles at the corners of a pentagram, place required reagents near the candles, and then focus the spell on objects such as wand, rod, etc. Upon successful preparation of the spell, those objects become magically enchanted, allowing you to cast a limited amount of the spells they hold. Mastering fire magic is very difficult not only because of the extreme detaillization of the preparation process (the amount of red and black candles, their positions, and the positions of the reagents are all specified), but also because it requires utmost precision to put the reagents as close to the candles as possible.

The Bad

Really, if "Pagan" just were a standalone game, if only it didn't bear the title Ultima! I'm sure we Ultima fans would show more understanding for this game if it weren't a part of our beloved franchise. But allow me to get straight to the point. "Pagan" is disappointing for Ultima fans not because it is an action game, not because you can jump and climb in it. I don't mind an Ultima game being an adventure, a RPG, a platform game, or a first-person shooter. But I do mind when it resembles a real Ultima mostly in unimportant and superficial aspects, while "betraying" what has been the very essence of the series since the legendary Quest of the Avatar. "Pagan" is, quite simply, a departure from the series' main creative and ethical ideas.

Many fans, myself included, were most shocked by the transformation of the series' protagonist. The word "Avatar" became nothing more but an empty formula, a kind of an abstraction that can be "filled" with any possible meaning. I wonder what a newcomer to the series would think about the Avatar if he were first introduced to this figure in "Pagan"?

"Right", - he would say, - "An Avatar. I think I got it. It's, like, a guy who wears a helmet, shouts when he falls on the ground, and kicks ghouls and skeletons?"

"No, my friend", - a veteran Ultima player would answer, sighing, - "Thou art mistaken. This concept hath a different meaning, 'tis much more than what thou hast said."

"Yup", - the newbie would reply, - "I know, I know. This is the kind of a guy who crawls through dark caverns like there's no tomorrow, and casts cool spells and all, right?"

The Ultima veteran would already roll his tired eyes to the heavens at this point.

"Oops, sorry", - the rookie would hastily continue, - "I didn't mean to upset you.... I think I got it now. An Avatar... That's, like... well, that's this guy who wants to go home, right? So there is this land, Pagan, so he walks around, kills things, steals stuff, makes some big dangerous dudes angry, causes all kinds of disasters, and all that because he needs those obelisk parts to build a black gate to go home... am I missing something, chief?.."

The unconscious body of the Ultima martyr is dragged away from the scene. Curtain.

...Ahem. Sorry I got carried away. But I think you understand what I mean. Since "Ultima IV", the concept of an Avatar was one of the main reasons for the incomparable greatness of the series. To strive to be an ideal, to help others, to be strict to oneself, to be courageous, loving, and truthful - this is what the series has been teaching us since the hero's first test of virtues. So what if in Serpent Isle we could plunder inns or sleep with seductive sorceresses. So what if in Ascension we'll have to clean shrines Roger Wilco-style and to lose our breath underwater. "We'll do that for virtuous purposes only", as Shamino put it - and it was so. In every Ultima game we tried to help others more than to help ourselves. Not so in "Pagan". Yes, the Avatar does some good things, but they are more like side effects to the real quest, which is to leave Pagan. Everything we do in the game is a part of this quest, no matter if we free cities from tyranny or revive dead people in the process. At the same time, the Avatar firmly follows the dubious rule "the goal justifies the means": he doesn't care much about the consequences of his actions, as long as it remains possible to transport his own butt safely to our dimension. Sorry, but this is not an Avatar. Another reviewer suggested "Gunther" - why not, that's a fine title.

The world itself, Pagan, is also not exactly the marvel one would expect to see in an Ultima game. Okay, so this is not Britannia and it is supposed to be different. But Serpent Isle wasn't Britannia either, yet it was a living, convincing world, just like the kingdom of Lord British. Why is Pagan less interesting? For once, the interaction with its citizens is now much more scarce than before. Most people won't talk to you at all, some will only say a couple of rude words. The people themselves look like scared, faceless zombies. It seems like a minor omission, but I missed the wonderful character portraits from the three previous games tremendously. There is little activity in Pagan. You will rarely see people on the streets, except professionals like guards and beggars in Tenebrae or various kinds of magicians in other places. There is no day and night cycle, that made the worlds of previous Ultimas so realistic.

Pagan is also very small, by far the smallest Ultima world ("Ascension" has a much bigger world than "Pagan"). There is only one (!) real city in the whole game, the rest of the settlements being tiny enclaves of necromancers, theurgists, and sorcerers. Most of the game is occupied by a huge dungeon, the catacombs, which is the only way to reach the key locations of the game. Too much crawling there, and not much else.

Then there's the infamous "Super Mario Avatar" gameplay. Once again: let him jump, let him climb, as long as he is happy. But please, don't let him do it in such a way that we'll have to press down both mouse buttons four-five times in a row, until our hero finally decides whether he wants to jump, to climb, or just to stand there and to shake his head. Many times I tried to climb, and he jumped instead. Oh well, I guess that's not so important. But what about the combat? Action combat is fine, but why is the Avatar so clumsy? Why can't he even target his enemies properly? Many times I was attacked by ghouls or skeletons from behind, but it took me several attempts to position myself properly and to start beating the damn things up. If you miss the proper angle by an inch, the Avatar will begin to hit the air repeatedly, stupidly turning his back to the foe and moaning loudly whenever he gets hit. This whole business takes some fun out of what could have been a nice little platform game.

The Bottom Line

...This must have been one of the longest Bad sections I've ever written for a game I actually like very much. However, this "Bad" section doesn't do the game justice. I understand Ultima fans who experienced a "cultural shock" - I also couldn't help being disappointed by the game. But truth must be said: "Pagan" is still fantastic. Let's face it, even though we didn't like Avatar's behavior are weren't particularly attracted by the game's world, "Pagan" still has so much to offer to the player. It is the father of modern isometric action pseudo-RPGs, but it has much more than just action. Anyone who likes the gameplay style of Diablo should perhaps try "Pagan" for an infinitely deeper and more exciting experience. It has a finely crafted, detailed storyline, great atmosphere, rich gameplay, and plenty of Ultima goodness spread all over it.

And it shouldn't be missed by an Ultima fan simply because it is the middle part of the final Ultima trilogy. By the way, Avatar's weird behavior in Pagan can be understood once you reach the end of Ascension...